Pop quiz: What was the first music awards program ever televised?
If you answered "The Grammys," head to the corner and put on your dunce's cap. Because the first Grammy night ever televised was in 1970 -- two years after the Country Music Awards made its network debut.
"The second CMA Awards ceremony was covered as part of the Kraft Music Hall in 1968," says Ed Benson, executive director of the Country Music Association. "That was ahead of the Grammys, ahead of the American Music Awards, and a lot of others that have come along subsequently. So we're the granddaddy, if you will, of the music award shows on network television."
Naturally, among those other music award shows have been several others devoted to country music. And, of course, country music is also included as a category in the Grammy and American Music Awards.
So when Vince Gill and Clint Black step behind the podium as co-hosts of "The 27th Annual Country Music Awards" tonight (beginning at 8 p.m. on CBS, Channel 11 locally), a lot of viewers around the country may think they're seeing just another awards show.
But industry folk in Nashville know different. Because for them, what makes the CMA Awards show important isn't the chance to see performers like George Strait, Dwight Yoakam or Reba McEntire singing in prime time. It's the fact that these are the only awards that were voted on entirely by country music professionals.
That's because the CMA was brought into existence by the country music industry essentially to preserve and promote country music. In other words, the CMA is, at heart, a group formed of country musicians, by country musicians, and for country musicians.
"When the CMA was formed, back in '58, the country music industry at that time was faced with the threat of rock and roll's taking over," explains Benson. "In the mid-'50s, when country music had Hank Williams and Patsy Cline, some of the artists had a lot of success, but by '56 or '57, some of the radio stations . . . were switching to rock and roll.
"So these guys looked at one another and said, 'We've got to get our heads together, put our competitive interest aside and pull together.' "
And they did. Since then, the Country Music Association has operated as a trade association and an archival institution (they're the ones behind the Country Music Hall of Fame). As a result, even though country music has never been able to top the overall sales for rock and roll, country music has long had a strong cultural presence and an impressive commercial clout.
"There's a great spirit of cooperation," agrees Benson. "That was the seed that formed the CMA, and it prevails within the work of the organization today -- and within the industry as a whole. Whereas rock and roll has become so fragmented, as evidenced by the increasing number of categories in the Grammys. The rock business has never really had this kind of organization."
Benson describes the CMA Award process as a three-round process. First, any CMA member is allowed to submit nominations in any of the categories. The only specific criteria have to do with the Vocal Event of the Year category, which has to have been released as a single during the period of eligibility and must be a collaboration between two or more individual recording artists; and the Musician of the Year award, which can only go to a player who has appeared on an album or single that went Top-10 during the eligibility period. Otherwise, anything goes.
Consequently, the second-round ballot is usually quite substantial. "This year, on the second ballot, there were 54 singles in nomination," says Benson. "There were 62 songs in nomination. So it represents a pretty broad number of types of songs."
But it always boils down to a final five in each category, and those are the nominees contending tonight.
Interestingly, even though the CMA clearly represents the heart of the country music establishment, the group's voting record has been anything but stodgy. "One thing we have seen is the more immediate recognition of new stars," says Benson. "If you go back to the late '70s or early '80s, a new person coming onto the scene would have a hard time getting recognized or getting nominated, much less getting into the top five for an award. That wouldn't have happened 'til they'd been around a while.
"Now what we see is that the members are recognizing the rapid emergence of new talent in our business. That's been an important trend in our industry in terms of the success of country music, and it's gratifying to see that the CMA voters understand the importance and the impact of all the emerging new talent." Particularly since some of the 7,000 voting members have been in the CMA since its start. "Obviously, the age of the members doesn't seem to influence the way they vote," Benson comments.